Popular Science photo director Thomas Payne is a lifelong Star Wars fan, and he was one of the lucky few who saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night, before its official release date of December 17, 2015. Read on to discover his initial thoughts and appraisal. We’ve kept his review as spoiler-free as possible, but those wanting to go into the film knowing as little as possible should be aware of a few mild, potential spoilers. And if you really want to remain spoiler-free while you browse the internet, you can install this Chrome extension. The following thoughts are all Tom’s, but were edited and condensed by Carl Franzen, online director of Popular Science.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
From the moment the opening title scroll comes up, and you see the Star Wars font, and hear the John Williams score, it makes you giddy.
I saw Return of the Jedi in the movie theater when I was five years old and since then, I’ve been a lifelong, total Star Wars fan. I was excited for the prequels and enjoyed them when they first came out. But like everyone else, as time went by, I became much more disappointed by them. I think that’s where all these “George Lucas killed my childhood” feelings that some people have come from. People went into the prequels and wanted to feel like they were 12 years old again, but those movies didn’t capture that same feeling. I like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. That is the closest to the original Star Wars trilogy out of the prequels.
When you look back it, it’s the soulful magic, and that quality of old-school moviemaking, that’s what was missing in the prequels.
And for the Star Wars special edition, I think at the time it was fun to see where they cleaned up with technology. I just re-watched them not too long ago. But some of the additions aren’t good: why is there a long musical Cantina scene in Return of the Jedi that they added in? So there were good and bad things about the remastering…
But I had high hopes for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Why? Because the generation that is making movies right now — especially all these reboots and adaptations and continuations of popular characters like James Bond, or franchises like Star Trek, Marvel comics, and now Star Wars — they were fanboys and fangirls and lovers of these properties before they started making movies. And so they want to nurture these things that were dear to them in this way that not only captures the spirit of how they felt when they were 12, but also makes for a good movie.
The heart of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It has the soul and feel and humor and character interactions that everyone loved from the original trilogy.
Everyone talks about the diversity in the movie, and it’s amazing to see. Whoever you are, whatever you see when you look in the mirror, there’s a character in this film that will speak to you. The three leads are reflecting a diverse humanity. There’s someone representing everyone.
During the movie, the audience cheered several times. What I love watching the movie is that even with these new characters, by the end, people were cheering the new characters through their story arcs. During the course of this movie, the new characters win you over. So when you do cheer, it’s not just because you have this emotional connection to these characters from 30 years ago…
The new characters and the old characters interact seamlessly. It doesn’t feel forced. Harrison Ford doesn’t feel like he’s going through the motions or was just asked to repeat his old character, like he did in the fourth Indiana Jones film. In that, it seemed like he was trying to do the character’s original personality. In this movie, he’s doing Han Solo, but 30 years later.
The magic and the humor and the swagger of the originals that was lacking in the prequels is there again.
There’s no talk of trade negotiations in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a simple story, it’s easy to follow. And it’s heartfelt and soulful.
The dialogue is much better than probably any of the previous films. I think George Lucas is a wonderful technical director, but he has problems with people.
This movie feels like the old movies, the original trilogy, but also feels like a movie of 2015.
The action and special effects
The battle scenes are amazing. There’s lots of CGI, but it’s used along with all these practical effects, so it all feels like the same worn aesthetic.
If you’re sitting down with your kids and getting them caught up, if you’re showing them the original trilogy and getting them ready to see this movie, it will totally connect visually. Even though it’s a movie from 2015 and you can tell that, graphically, it fits cinematographically and visually with the original films.
You know when Revenge of the Sith opens up and there’s a whole battle scene going on, but it looks totally different than the battles in the original trilogy? That kind of took you out of the movie. But in this one, you’ve got your X-Wings, your Tie Fighters, your Millennium Falcon, and so it feels like the originals, visually, even when there’s all this CGI going on.
How much of Star Wars do you need to know beforehand?
It’s more fun to go into it and not be spoiled by it. I stopped watching all those TV spots two weeks ago. There’s so much in this movie and characters that’s not in the trailers.
If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movie you could still go in and enjoy it. I think it definitely helps to have seen the movies, but you can go into this movie if you hadn’t seen any, and still like it.
There’s a lot of winks and nods to the past and the original trilogy, there’s little “Easter eggs” that you can see if you’re paying attention. Kind of like in the Marvel movies.
Even if you’ve never Star Wars, you’re probably at least aware of the cultural zeitgeist and some of the bigger characters and elements, like Darth Vader and the Force.
You definitely don’t have to go into this movie having spent the last month catching up on everything new Disney’s added to the Star Wars universe canon in order to enjoy it.
I think you can go into this movie totally cold. In that case, it will still look really pretty, and you will appreciate the cool battle scenes, but some of it might go over your head.
Search your feelings
This movie is going to want to make people enter a two-year hibernation in carbonite until the next one comes out. Especially with how it ends.
You’re not waiting for the next one just to see the old characters, you want to see what happens to the new ones just as much. It’s not just a nostalgia trip.
It’s almost like, you want to say, “just wake me up when this new trilogy is over.” You almost want to wait to bingewatch them on Netflix because you’re so excited to see what happens next.
There was one scene where I was sitting there just gripping my legs. There’s a good 20 minutes where your mouth is just open.
From how this movie ends, everyone should feel like they’re in good hands about the coming Star Wars movies that are coming in the next 10 years.
You walk out of there feeling collective relief that everyone enjoyed the movie. It’s that same emotional high you feel coming out of a good concert. It’s a big cheering, pump-your-fist kind of movie.
The final verdict?
My ranking of Star Wars movies would be Empire Strikes Back as the best, and then this one. It also has a huge repeat viewing value.
…But I still think Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie I’ve seen all year.